50 years of interpretation at General Conference

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More than 200 unsung heroes work behind the scenes to bring general conference to people all over the world in their native language. It is no easy task, and translators face many challenges like describing rock climbing to jungle people in the Hmong language.

This fall marks 50 years of interpretation of general conference for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Interpretation started in the basement of the Salt Lake Tabernacle in October 1961. The talks were interpreted into German, Dutch, Samoan and Spanish. Now general conference is interpreted into 93 languages.

Hank Pond, who interpreted conference from 1978 to 1982, remembers sitting in a small booth with pocket doors. There was room for only two chairs and a desk. On the desk, there was a little TV monitor with a toggle switch that went left, center and right to switch between interpreters.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the interpretation of LDS General Conference. (Photo courtesy LDS.org)

The Friday night before general conference, Pond and his fellow interpreter would receive the talks in English and write them in Tahitian. He said they couldn’t rely on their written translations because sometimes the job was interpreting rather than translating.

“Some of these men, like LeGrand Richards, would hand in a talk because they were asked to, but then they would talk about whatever would move them at the time,” Pond said.

When this occurred, volunteer interpreters needed to translate as the person spoke instead of reading the prepared translation.

“No matter who it is that’s interpreting or translating, the beautiful part is, is that the Spirit will override it,” Pond said.

He also shared the unwritten rule for interpreters when he volunteered.

“If you get lost and can’t keep up, just bear your testimony and you’ll be fine,” Pond said.

One of Pond’s favorite parts of being an interpreter was walking through the tunnel from the garage at the Hotel Utah to the Tabernacle. On one occasion, Pond walked through the tunnel with a man who looked really familiar. After Pond translated the first talk, the man from the tunnel got up to give a talk, and Pond realized it was Elder Boyd K. Packer.

Jonathan Heaton, a recent BYU graduate, has interpreted since 2004.  Heaton said it is a great way to continue serving the Thai people and is an opportunity to keep up with the language. It’s a great opportunity to see the Spirit at work throughout the process, Heaton said.

General authorities usually have their talks turned in about a week in advance. Then, for Heaton’s team, the talks are sent to Thailand where translators do a first translation and send it back to Salt Lake for adjustment.

Now, interpreters have a large room in the Conference Center lined with booths,  similar to the ones Pond used under the Tabernacle. Through their headsets, they hear the talk given in English in one ear and their own voice in the other. While listening, they are reading and speaking in the other language.

“It’s a challenge, but it’s also really cool to see it all come together,” Heaton said. “And I really think the Spirit, obviously, plays a role in that aspect of it.”

Heaton’s team has about 20 people with one or two talks to translate per assigned session. He said the tag-team effort helps with preparation and gives different voices to the different speakers.

Sometimes a general authority proficient in another language will do the translating himself. Elder Richard G. Scott translates his talks into Spanish and then he pre-records, reading them himself.

Eli McCann, a recent graduate of BYU Law School, interpreted for Ukrainian from 2005 to 2008. The talks were sent to interpreters in Ukraine, who would read the talks as they were being given in Salt Lake. The Ukrainian team in Salt Lake had two interpreters per session who alternated.

McCann said he was basically a back-up interpreter for when the signal would cut out or the interpreters in Ukraine had problems. If the interpreters in Ukraine had technical problems or difficulty keeping up when speakers veered from their written talk, McCann would interpret.

“It was really interesting to see how sometimes the speakers would vary or go a little bit off their talk and how the interpreters would respond to that,” McCann said. “It was a stressful but really exciting situation to be put in, where you never knew if you’d need to do on-the-spot work.”

McCann said he was told the interpretation equipment and process were considered, at the time, to be more impressive than what the United Nations was using.

According to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 43 languages are interpreted in the Conference Center and broadcast via satellite. For 31 languages, interpretations are done around the world, transmitted back to the Conference Center and then broadcast after combining audio and video.

Another 12 languages are interpreted on location around the world but aren’t transmitted through the Conference Center. These include Icelandic, Albanian, Georgian and Latvian. The remaining seven languages are interpreted in the Conference Center and distributed on DVD later.

Glenn Germany, a Hmong interpreter from 2006 to 2008 and in 2010, said the more common languages are usually translated by professionals and returned missionaries usually interpret less common languages like those from  Southeast Asia.

Germany said these languages, like Hmong, aren’t easy to interpret. He said it’s hard to translate the words of President Thomas S. Monson and make them sound just as poetic.

“We’re trying to get that same spirit across that every person who speaks English feels, in a language that is totally different,” Germany said. “It wasn’t easy, but I feel like it would always come out right.”

He said there are some people who are notorious for veering off the subject, like President Monson, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland and sometimes President Packer.

“Before Elder David B. Haight passed away, he was one of the more feared because he would write a talk and then not say anything on it,” Germany said.

Germany said he enjoyed being a part of it all.

“It says in the scriptures that the gospel will be preached in every tongue,” he said. “And I felt like I was a part of that, getting it everywhere, so every person can understand that a prophet of God is speaking and this is what he’s saying.”

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